The League of
Extraordinary Gentlemen
U.S.A. - Europe / 2003
Directed by Stephen Norrington
Starring
Sean Connery
Naseeruddin Shah
Peta Wilson
Color / 110 Minutes / PG-13
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC)
20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
 
4
    7  
10 = Highest
Rating
 
Talk about blowing it!
   
On paper, at least, this movie had a lot going for it: a cool premise (characters from 19th Century literature band together to form a team of Victorian superheroes), first-rate production design (Carol Spier - Naked Lunch, Mimic), a director with a demonstrated talent for action (Stephen Norrington, Blade), and a cast headlined by one of the world's last genuine movie stars (Sean Connery). But even with all these positive elements, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen just couldn't get its collective act together.
    Based on the terrific graphic novel by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill, League posits an alternate-reality Victorian Age on the brink of world war in the year 1899. A masked super-villain known as "The Fantom" has developed an array of 'futuristic' weaponry
tanks, body armor, automatic rifles with which he plans to set nation against nation. With his henchmen dressed as German soldiers the evil genius uses a tank to smash his way into the Bank of England and rob it. Soon afterwards (this time disguised in British uniforms) the Fantom's gang raids a zeppelin factory outside Berlin and destroys it in spectacular fashion. Blaming each other for the incidents, the British Empire and Imperial Germany begin mobilizing for war.
    In Africa, the legendary adventurer of King Solomon's Mines fame
, Allan Quatermain (Connery), is approached by one of Her Majesty's civil servants. Will he come out of retirement to defend the Empire in its hour of need? The decision is made for him when Quatermain's club is attacked by the Fantom's men and an old drinking buddy (the late David Hemmings, in an all-too-fleeting cameo) is shot dead. Traveling to London, Quatermain is briefed by "M" (Richard Roxburgh) on the threat the Fantom poses to global stability in the aftermath of the attacks on the Bank of England and the zeppelin works, the world's major powers have begun an arms race to develop advanced weapons. A secret conference of heads-of-state is scheduled to take place in Venice to discuss and hopefully avert the looming crisis. Quatermain has been recruited to lead a select, highly specialized team of volunteers in a mission to protect the conference and eliminate this 'Fantom' menace. His league mates: Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), scientist/explorer a century ahead of his time and commander of the fabled Nautilus submarine-boat; Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran), a cockney thief who stole the invisibility formula from a certain mad scientist and is now himself invisible; Dr. Henry Jekyll (Jason Flemyng) and his chemically-induced monster of an alter ego, Mr. Hyde; Dorian Grey (Queen of The Damned's Stuart Townsend), a foppish rake who is immortal and indestructible as long as he never gazes upon a magical portrait of himself; and Mina Harker (Peta Wilson of TV's La Femme Nikita), a vampire (through her past contact with Count Dracula) who keeps her bloodlust in check in order to serve Mankind. Later joining this eclectic group for no justifiable reason other than as a sop to American audiences is the grown-up Tom Sawyer (Shane West), now a pistol-packin' agent of the U.S. Secret Service.
    The remainder of the adventure is pure formula, with the requisite action sequence every 15 minutes or so to keep things moving along. Connery is just coasting here, playing Sean Connery the Screen Persona, but when is that ever really a bad thing? He's the only actor I know to remain viable
or rather, semi-believable as an action hero well into his 70s. (A decent rug and good editing certainly help.) Some of the other actors get to shine in his stead despite the thin script. Curran gives the Invisible Man routine a fresh spin; Townsend and Flemyng make the most of their Dorian Grey and Dr. Jekyll roles. Wilson is well-cast as the vampiric Mina, prim yet steely when Mrs. Harker the chemist, feral and sexy when it's time to bare her fangs. Captain Nemo, as played by Shah and in accordance with Jules Verne's novels, is a Sikh warrior-prince, not a European; his Nautilus and land-traveling roadster ("I call it an automobile") are festooned with Eastern symbols and stylings. (The interior of the Nautilus looks more like a Raja's palace than a submarine.) In fact, he's such a cool character in this film I think I'd have enjoyed it a bit more had it been fashioned as The Amazing Adventures Of Captain Nemo instead!
    Props, sets, and costumes are all topnotch, giving the film a great "steampunk" look. On the other hand, the abundant special effects are a decidedly mixed bag. Splendid miniatures are often incorporated with mediocre to poor CGI, the kind that'd be acceptable for a small-screen Xena episode perhaps but not a major motion picture. I sense that, for many key shots, League's computer animators fought a losing battle to meet the release deadline. Corners were cut and it shows. The rendering of Mr. Hyde
in this film a Hulk-like brute of enormous size and strength is not entirely successful. The gigantic set-piece that makes up the middle part of the film, the partial destruction of a city, is a bloated, loud, confusing mess that substantially damages the whole. Afterwards, when League makes a valiant attempt to rally in the action-packed climax, I was beyond caring. It is not, however, the wildly uneven digital effects that deliver the fatal wound. The film's cardinal sin is its dumbing down of the subject matter. The makers assume that the audience is pretty stupid... How else to explain the scene in which the battleship-sized Nautilus is shown sailing up the canals of Venice (!!!)?
    I was quite torn, actually, about my final Movie Rating for this film. I positively love the concept, and some of the set-pieces are genuinely fun and exciting. But the CGI overkill, weak script, and ludicrous gaffes
(Venice, anyone?) truly undercut the good stuff. So I'm left with no alternative but to award The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 4 points (out of ten). Perhaps if I were in a more generous mood I'd nudge it upwards to a '5', but I'm not. That would just be too much of a stretch.

Since it played in theaters less than 6 months ago, the Fox DVD naturally presents League using state-of-the-art video and audio. The film looks and sounds quite fantastic. The 5.1 Surround audio track is of particularly note; it is exemplary, and easily the technical highlight of the DVD.
    Extras are comparatively thin considering that League was intended as a summer blockbuster typically such major studio offerings get the 2-disc treatment nowadays. Perhaps the disappointing box-office returns were a factor here... Two separate audio commentaries are provided: the first with actors Curran, Flemyng and West and producers Don Murphy and Trevor Albert; the second with costume designer Jacqueline West, make-up supervisor Steve Johnson and special effects artists John E. Sullivan and Matthew Gratzner. Whether these will interest you or not depends chiefly on how much you like the film. There are also 12 deleted scenes (some with unfinished digital effects) that don't really add anything to the film and were no real loss to the final cut. A featurette in six parts, Assembling the League, gives an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the production. (Running almost an hour total, I see no real reason to have split it into multiple segments. My favorite part detailed the building of the "Nemomobile".) In a brief interview clip, Connery reveals himself to be something of a clueless fuddyduddy who has made some terrible career choices of late; he turned down roles in The Matrix and Lord of the Rings because he (quote) "didn't understand them."
    Oddly, the film's trailer is not included on the disc. Instead there's a "special message" a video PSA warning of the dangers of smoking marijuana. Thanks so much for reminding me, Fox. 12/20/03
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